Bruckner Symphony # 6 – A Retrospective By Curtis Rittenhouse

By on June 2, 2013

Bruckner 8Bruckner is either a composer you get or you don’t. He was a certified eccentric, sexually repressed, gullible, naive. rustic, talented, and god knows what else. He was devoutly religious, Catholic, obsessive-compulsive and I think that is the key to some of his music. Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the young French-Canadian music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra recently revealed that he was asked by a German orchestra he was guest conducting where his love of Bruckner came from, and he answered a Catholic upbringing.

For a long time Mahler and Bruckner were lumped together like the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of post-Wagnerians but the fact is they were very different. Disciples of Mahler often stumble through Bruckner emotionally and vice versa. These were two very emotional composers. The driving forces of the two composers were different.   Bruckner always seemed to be aspiring to Heaven. Mahler just seemed to be working through his own problems, but brilliantly. And then there was Richard Strauss who was never plagued with self-doubt until after WWII.

Bruckner conductingSurprisingly interpreters who gravitate to Bruckner regard his Sixth symphony as something of an oddity. And it is different. Where Bruckner usually ruminates, here he charges forth with uncharacteristic self-confidence. The Sixth is his Eroica. Why I cannot tell you. The Fifth that precedes it looks backward more than any of his other works. It was his first limited success. The Seventh, perhaps his most popular, returns to his ruminative style. The way to tell which Mahler-Bruckner camp you fall into is to listen to several symphonies of each composer and then ask yourself which seem to consist of more ‘filler.’ Mahler for me was always Mr. Filler.

keilberth condI love Bruckner, and I love his Sixth symphony most of all. Solti, Karajan and Klemperer are all very accomplished masters of the baton who know how to play Bruckner and navigate competently through the notes of the Sixth symphony. Ditto Barenboim and Wand. But you know you are dealing with someone who really gets the Sixth when you hear the old Berlin Philharmonic recording with Joseph Keilberth. He moves through the piece like he has loved it for a long time and knows how it is supposed to go. The phrasing is special. The rubato seems right. The Japanese resuscitated that early stereo recording about ten years ago and you should snap up a copy if you can still find it.  Another similar interpretation is one by Bongartz and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, on Eterna, also hard to find on the internet, and the sound is not quite as mellow.

keil6Supposedly Wilhelm Furtwängler, the great Bruckner expert of the 20th century, finally fell in love with the piece, but only 3/4 of his only interpretation survives. I have not heard it. Karl Bohm another great Brucknerian never touched it that I know. Neither did Giulini who was late to the altar of Bruckner. Or Van Beinum. Jochum does a good job. Haitink is competent. Muti is different. You need a virtuoso orchestra to put it across. The Shop-Rite strings will not do.

It is a real thrill to hear a great interpreter of the Sixth like Keilberth blazing his trail through this uplifting piece. Bruckner was an chronic reviser but with this symphony he knew he got right and never revised it. His interpretation radiates positivity and the orchestra is right with him. There are many good decent versions of this symphony. I have heard the Bernstein New York Philharmonic concert reading which is very good, but if you want to know Bruckner at his best, seek out the Keilberth reading. It is a great musical experience and just might make your day. More than once.

Curtis Rittenhouse


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